Just mention the federal budget to Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.) and he starts feeling like a wishbone. His heart pulls him in one direction, but his constituents and his president pull him in another.
Today something snaps.
Parris, who described himself late yesterday as "resolutely undecided" on the budget, typifies the Washington area's members of Congress, who confront the compromise deficit reduction plan that comes before the House today with undiluted dread.
Virtually all the area's lawmakers say they detest everything about the proposal -- its tax increases, its cuts in government services and its timing, coming only weeks before House elections.
But Washington is a company town, and area legislators live just outside the factory gates. The prospect of massive federal layoffs if no budget is adopted presents a political threat that is especially poisonous here.
"I'm in a unique situation," said Parris, a staunch foe of new taxes who was urged yesterday by President Bush to swallow his opposition. "About a third of my constituents are federal workers, more than in any other congressional district. But the other two-thirds aren't . . . . Most things you can lay out and see how they play politically. But this one is a bear."
In interviews over the last two days, Washington area lawmakers said they were split over the spending plan. Three of four senators from Virginia and Maryland said they would support it, albeit reluctantly; Maryland Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski said she was uncertain.
Among six House members, Reps. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Constance A. Morella (R-Md.) supported it; Parris and Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) were wavering; and Reps. D. French Slaughter Jr. (R-Va.) and Roy Dyson (D-Md.), said they would oppose the plan. Dyson and Slaughter have primarily rural districts that extend far beyond the Washington suburbs.
But all agreed on one thing: This budget vote leaves them no way to win, and no place to hide.
Hoyer, who is among the Democratic leaders rounding up support for the plan, said, "I didn't think I would like it, and I don't like it." Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) said, "I would not write this budget package myself, obviously." Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) said only, "I am willing to act responsibly."
One area lawmaker who asked not to be identified touched on a sentiment that appeared widespread. "Frankly, I'd like to call in scared" on the budget vote, the legislator said. "Pray for an earthquake."
Though all Washington area lawmakers are feeling the budget heat, the hottest seat of all may belong to Parris, who represents Northern Virginia's 8th District. Parris faces a vigorous challenge from Alexandria Mayor James P. Moran Jr., a Democrat, who has already accused Parris of contradicting himself on the subject of spending and taxes.
Parris acknowledged yesterday he is instinctively inclined to vote against the budget and stand by a no-new-taxes promise. "That's where I'm coming from in the beginning," he said. But he cited a number of pressures that could lead him to change his mind.
First, there is the prospect of a budget impasse that could leave thousands of his constituents temporarily without their federal jobs. Parris admits that in the event of layoffs, he could become a target for voter hostility on Election Day. And he knows too well what that feels like.
Parris was elected to Congress in 1972, and like many Republicans, was swept away in the Democratic tidal wave that followed the Watergate scandal in 1974. He did not return to the House until 1980. "The voters decided to send a message," Parris said, "and they sent it through me."
Second, there is President Bush, who has thrown his weight behind the budget compromise and is pressuring his fellow Republicans to stand with him. Parris was among several House members scheduled to confer with Bush yesterday.
"I am very concerned about the federal employee situation and defense programs and many things I hold dear," Parris said. "But I have real questions about whether we can enforce this 'agreement' we're making to hold down spending. This is Hobson's choice. And there's no way out."